Climate Change, Environment, Europe, Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa

EU: To Kill, But Not Pollute

David Cronin

BRUSSELS, Jun 19 2010 (IPS) - European Union subsidies earmarked for reducing air travel’s contribution to climate change may help develop deadlier warplanes than those already found in the world’s arsenals, Brussels officials have admitted.

Some 1.6 billion euros (2 billion dollars) has been allocated to the EU’s “Clean Sky” project, which aims to develop aircraft engines that emit half as much carbon dioxide as those now in use. With the funding being divided between industry and the European taxpayer, plane and engine manufacturers have stated that the project underscores their eagerness to be more ecologically responsible.

Yet a closer look at the glossy brochures promoting the scientific research initiative reveals that the list of participants reads like a who’s who of major arms producers from Europe and further afield. These include Dassault, EADS, Safran, Israel Aerospace Industries, Saab and Westland Helicopters.

Under the terms of their involvement, individual companies may apply for patents on innovations realised during the course of their research. The European Commission, the EU’s executive branch, says that there will be nothing to stop such firms from using the technology they develop for military purposes.

Rudolf Strohmeier, deputy head of the Commission’s scientific research department, said that having EU-funded engines inserted into warplanes is “something which you can’t really exclude from the outset” as such engines are “easily switched over” from civilian to military aircraft.

“If a military airplane uses this type of technology, then it will be greener,” he told IPS. “But to my knowledge, this (potential military applications) is definitely not the objective.”

The participation of Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) in the project has drawn criticism from some human rights advocates. This firm supplied many of the weapons used by Israel in its attacks on Gaza during late 2008 and early 2009. Even though it is not a fully-fledged member of the EU, Israel is a participant in its scientific research programme and has proven more adept at drawing down grants than most of the Union’s own states.

An EU official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that Israeli firms had recently asked the Commission to support a project explicitly focused on military aircraft but the request was turned down. While the source said that the EU’s research activities are nominally civilian, no guarantees can be given that their fruits will not have military applications. “The Israelis don’t play by the same rules as everybody else,” the source added.

Frank Slijper from the Dutch Campaign Against the Arms Trade said: “It is beyond my comprehension how Israeli arms companies get Brussels money for their research. This really is a very weird situation. As far as I know, IAI does very little civilian business, it is just an arms company. IAI has made a clear and direct contribution in the Middle East against the Palestinians and the Lebanese.”

As well as lowering their emissions of climate-changing gases, Clean Sky’s goals include the introduction of aircraft that consume less fuel and are less noisy. A project of this nature is bound to prove enticing for arms companies, Slijper added. “Mostly, they say it works the other way around: subsidies that go into European military aircraft research have a spin-off effect for civilian aircraft research work. But this could be an example where subsidies for environmental flying ultimately also benefit the military. The more silent aircraft are, the closer they can get to where they can pick their targets to bomb before anyone might notice.”

Eric Dautriat, who directs the team overseeing the implementation of Clean Sky, said “I don’t see what the problem is” with involving arms manufacturers, who will have “the same rules of participation” as the other firms and research institutes involved.

Due to be completed in 2017, Clean Sky is one of the largest research projects ever financed by the EU. Gareth Williams, a representative of Airbus, the French aviation firm, said that air traffic tends to double every 15 years and is likely to double once more in the coming 15 years. “With this growth in the sector, we must address the issues around emissions,” he told a conference held in Brussels Jun. 18.

Aviation accounts for about 5 percent of all releases of climate-changing gases into the atmosphere, with some studies predicting that the environmental impact of flying will be three to four times greater than in 2000 by the middle of this century. Unlike most other industries, aviation has still not been brought within the scope of an international emissions control agreement.

Jos Dings, director of the campaign group Transport and Environment, questioned why the aviation industry is being lavished with subsidies under Clean Sky, when it has been highly cosseted by EU governments for decades

“The aviation sector already enjoys more than enough subsidies,” he said. “There is no VAT (value added tax) on an airline ticket and it is the only mode of transport where there is no fuel tax. When it comes to subsidy programmes, the industry is always very optimistic about bringing down emissions. But when it comes to other measures like a fuel tax, they are always saying that absolutely nothing will bring down emissions so ‘stop thinking about applying legal measures to us’.”

Because scientists believe that greenhouse gases released at high altitude have a more pronounced effect on the climate than those released at ground level, aviation is considered the most environmentally damaging form of transport.

“If we want to decarbonise our economy, aviation really should be one of the first thing we should start to tackle,” Dings added. “In these times of austerity, it is absolutely untenable and irresponsible that we keep holding onto all tax exemptions that the sector is enjoying. Tackling these exemptions would be one of the fairest ways for any austerity package to start.”

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